1. Time, Attention, & Energy Demands - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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1. Time, Attention, & Energy Demands

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Odd Off Different-Cpl

Off, Odd, Different… Special? Learning Disabilities, ADHD, Aspergers Syndrome, and Giftedness in Couples and Couple Therapy

Individuals with challenges, including emotional, processing, intellectual, and physical disabilities demand a disproportionate amount of the time, attention, and energy from intimate others.  They may often also demand a disproportionate share of the financial resources of the couple or family.  The physical environment of the house, of the home may require alterations for safety and/or access.  The individual may require special equipment such as hearing aids, Braille readers, wheelchairs, lifts in cars, and so forth.  A partner may require specialized education, training, resources, and equipment to function as well.  These may be necessary to maximize the limited abilities of a disability and/or to develop effective compensations using other abilities.  As a child, the individual may have needed specific vocational training or life skills training to prepare for life within the limitations of his/her disability.  As a child, he or she may have required intense supervision from his/her parents and other caretakers that is no longer available.  Brody did not need physical accommodation, but he needed social and emotional accommodations that his mother Paige provided at significant personal mental and physical cost.  Raising and supporting him was different from providing the same for his younger brother.  Brody just saw and did things differently.  At issue would be whether the individual such as Brody had internalized successful adaptations and compensations to deal with his or her challenges.  As a child, Brody had been involved in a vicious circle of wear and tear on the family.  Now as a partner with Faith, similar dynamics stressed them.

The partner of a challenged individual may feel bewildered and inadequate to meet the individual's special needs.  The partner holds a template of expectations for communication, interaction, collaboration, and other dynamics, and then finds the challenged individual reacting and responding in some eccentric or unanticipated manner.  Despite trying to accepting, at some point the behavior seems not just different, but odd or off.  Special traits or ways of dealing with things start being annoying or worse.  Confusion and disappointment leads to being depressed, feeling guilty, and being embarrassed.  Faith suffered from a lack of satisfaction, feeling isolated, and being over-involved trying as much as she could without making it better.  Angry, exhausted, and feeling trapped, the non-challenged partner can begin to see oneself as a victim of the individual's issues.  Faith felt less confused once she learned from Paige that Brody had these issues from childhood.  Brody was not "doing" this to her in some perversely purposeful hateful manner.  However, she still felt victimized by his behaviors.  Since Brody like many family members with a disability or major challenge drew disproportionate attention and energy, other family members often feel ignored and their needs unmet or considered less important.  His mother Paige and later, Faith felt she was asked to set aside her feelings and needs for him.

Paige had been also concerned that Brody's brother resented him.  Brody's brother loved him and initially looked up to him.  Eventually, the odd behavior wore thin as much as the excuse that Brody was "special" did.  Faith was concerned that their children were becoming angry with Brody and at her.  "That's just daddy" became an old tired excuse for one or another disappointment over what Brody did or did not do for the kids.  Resentment came from the additional work or the compromises to their needs that Brody's issues created.  They may feel that Brody intentionally used his issues to gain unfair advantages in the family.  At the same time, they might feel guilt and shame, and/or are shamed by Paige or each other for being angry at Brody… and for being "selfish."  Children may take on pseudo-parental roles required for family functioning that their parents are too distracted to perform.  Such roles may help them develop positive adult nurturing and responsibility skills, but they also may prevent them from exploring other roles and skills freely.  This dynamic is very similar to the family dynamic that develops in an alcoholic or drug addicted family system or other psychologically dysfunctional system.  Brody's brother was the little helper and is still very responsible as an adult.  Unfortunately, he did not really get to be a little boy when he was a little boy.  

Brody had some issues that created problems for him perceiving, interpreting, integrating, and responding appropriately to others including his wife, Faith.  His issues compromised his interpersonal functioning creating problems for everyone.  Starting as children, most individuals develop relationships primarily through the interactive process of play.  This includes being playful, which invites reciprocity.  With greater verbal skills, conversation becomes critical to play.  Practical conversations require not just language skills, but social skills such as taking turns.  Interplay between two individuals requires a reciprocal fluidity of topics, as opposed to reverting to or asserting ones area of special interests.  Conversation dynamics involves give and take between participants, as opposed to one person speaking and the other listening only.  Play, playfulness, and humor includes attention to the flow of communication, which is required to appreciate humor.  Showing interest and laughing at the right time facilitates play and relationships.  Intellectual skills including mental agility to recognize nuance and perspective is necessary to appreciate puns or jokes.  On the other hand, when one is too literal- that is tending to be hyperverbal, humor and playful invitations are missed.  This disappoints or discourages others continuing to develop relationships.  Brody did not "play" well with others as a child, and did not "play" well with Faith as a partner.

Individuals with challenges who are out of tune with others can develop problematic compensations.  A lack of guidance combined with immature sophistication can prompt such individuals to seek satisfaction problematically.  Some individuals get into verbal sparring with others.  Rather than conversations that share ideas and opinion, they seek to always "win" or prove themselves right.  This manifested for Brody in proving the other person- that is, his wife Faith to be wrong.  Although, such people subjectively achieve their goal of winning, they may be clueless about the major consequence of their adamant discourse.  They may be unaware that other people would be highly annoyed if not angry with them.  Observable in early childhood, relentless arguments that disturb others can become particularly prominent in middle school.  Adults who continue this pattern of behavior are exceedingly off-putting to others, and then are surprised that others don't seem to like to talk or associate with them.  Rather than creating intimacy or friendship, such compensation drives others away.  They seem to "win" every argument because they turn every discussion into an argument about who is correct and who is stupid.  Other people often disengage and defer the battleground to the "victor," deciding that trying to converse is not worth the negativity.  Brody was not aware of how he wore Faith down.  As the "victories" mount, relationships fade or disappear.  Only individuals heavily invested (mother-Paige and wife-Faith, for example with Brody) continue to try.  Certain individuals may accept a limited or flawed intimate partner or relationship, while others may eventually give up.  Learning how to express opinions, to disagree, or to dispute but to maintain collegiality would be productive in the long-term goal of friendship or intimacy.  Individuals such as Brody who fail to learn productive compensations during childhood are at risk to become challenged in later adult couple relationships.

As a child, Brody's social problems identified him for teasing or bullying.  Socially inept children, teens, and adults often fit the profile of a typical victim.  More likely to be loners, who appear and act differently from others, predatory personalities readily pick them out.  The bully/predator recognize them much like the wolf pack identifies the most vulnerable animal in the herd.  Any oddity or derivation from the social norm sets them apart.  "…evidence abounds that children and youth who demonstrate adequate social-emotional skills are more likely to be successful academically, accepted by others, be emotionally well adjusted, and enjoy high levels of self-esteem and self-confidence (Elksnin & Elksnin, 2003).  Conversely, children and youth who do not possess these skills are more likely to be rejected, experience school difficulty, drop out of school; and suffer mental health problems and be under- or unemployed during adulthood" (Elksnin & Elksnin, 1995, 1998, 2001) (Elksnin and Elksnin, 2004, page 5).

Gutstein and Whitney (2002, page 162) break social competence into three separate areas of social development that need to be integrated for a person to be successful: (a) secure attachment, (b) instrumental social learning, and (c) experience-sharing relationships.  Significant deficit in any one of the three elements can cause failure in social relationships or acceptance.  Secure attachment has been extensively explored among many theorists.  Instrumental social actions are purposely taken to achieve a specific objective in a social setting.  In instrumental behavior, social contact is a way to gaining some goal.  Interaction with other persons serve achieving something outside of the relationship itself.  People engage in the time and energy of instrumental behavior knowing ahead of time what they are after.  That may be certain things, knowledge, or skills for example.  Social skills training including that between a couple tends to be instrumental.  Asking for something, getting help, and performing a multitude of regular behaviors to get personal needs met (e.g., waiting for the bathroom, sharing control of the remote control, behaving appropriately at dinner with the in-laws to gain appreciation from the spouse).  Individuals become competent by observing, experimenting with, and learning behavioral and communication actions in response to the behaviors of others.  Communication scripts or interactions become formalized in an orderly fashion.  Individuals learn what to do and how to respond according to certain circumstances and what they want to have happen.  This means that competent individuals learn that certain communications and behaviors correlate with specific consequences.  In childhood, this might mean learning that being polite makes it more likely for a child to get from a parent what he or she wants versus being demanding.  As an adult, it could mean Brody learning that Faith will be more attentive and caring for him if he is attentive and caring for her.  Unfortunately, Brody did not associate his specific behavior as influential to how Faith responded to him.  Brody failed to "learn repertoires of behavior for various situations that will increase the probability of favorable, desired outcomes and minimize negative consequences" (Gutstein and Whitney, 2002, page 163).

Another important aspect of being socially competent is experience-sharing.  This includes wanting to and having the ability to reciprocate as a good partner (playmate in childhood); valuing other people's points of view; developing friends, and successfully engage in other emotional interactions. As opposed to instrumental actions, experience-sharing is not focused on gaining some benefit outside of the relationship.  It "occurs without concern for specific external rewards.  Experience-sharing is beneficial in of itself.  While individuals in instrumental interactions are bond to follow the guidance of scripts specific to the circumstances, experience-sharing is more fluid as it depends on the flow of interactions.  Experience-sharing requires individuals to monitor the feelings and behaviors of the other person, and continually adapt their behavior ongoing evaluations of many variables" (Gutstein and Whitney, 2002, page 163).  While Faith was attentive and responsive to others' dynamic moods and actions, Brody had great trouble staying tuned into and interpreting Faith and others' feelings.  Faith was very aware of Brody and her sensitivity allowed her to share in his experiences as they fluctuated.  He on the other hand, had difficulty getting what Faith and others were experiencing, much less how their moods may shift.

While there are many skills and tactics for close relationships, most desired may be the enthusiasm and ability to share or enjoy fun.  Close friendships and romantic intimacy find the person or "The child who goes out of his or her way to communicate joy and pleasure during shared activities will typically be highly valued.  People of all ages enjoy being around those who are upbeat and enthusiastic.  Reports of 'I just feel happier when I'm with her,' or 'Her laughter is contagious,' are common indicators of friendship selection" (page 163).  Individuals facilitate positive relationships by initiating interaction and activities and inviting others to participate.  Their tone can imply shared stimulation and fun for everyone.  When relatively young (pre-Kindergarten age), children learn how to coordinate play with others.  Social and emotional coordination does not require structure given by others.  "A child's ability to socially coordinate his or her free play with peers and his or her theory of mind (understanding the perspective of others) is highly predictive of eventual friendship success (Slomkowski & Dunn, 1996)" (Gutstein and Whitney, page 163).  Brody's mother, Paige was not aware of just how Brody's social difficulties were predictive of his intimacy success with Faith.  Relationships whether childhood friendships or with adult intimate partners require coordinated play and/or interactions.  During childhood, individuals learn joint attention to coordinate perceptions and share experiences.  This leads eventually to coordinating ideas and other internal states.  Individuals who enjoy solitary activities without noting reactions of others may be shunned.  Conversely, individuals who attend to and integrate the emotional reactions of others are more socially popular.  Others appreciate individuals who are interested in understanding and relating to others' feelings.  This includes putting aside or delaying an enjoyable activity to care for or help someone.

A final, critical aspect of emotional coordination is exemplified in the concept of "we-go" (Emde, 1989). Even young children share a feeling of being allied in a common unit—a type of group ego, or "we-go"—that together is stronger than the sum of its parts.  Older children perceive their friends as crucial allies who will drop what they are doing and come to their aid in times of need.  They operate like the Three Musketeers, with their motto of "One for all and all for one" (Gottman, 1984) (Gutstein and Whitney, 2002, page 164).  Brody was more like one for one- himself.  Sometimes Faith felt it was two for one- both of them accommodating Brody's needs while ignoring hers.  While Faith worked at the relationship, Brody often seemed oblivious to doing ongoing maintenance and repair to the relationship.  Since shared relationships of any kind are often unpredictable with multiple shifting influences and stresses, miscommunication, confusion, and conflict are often inherent.  Healthy relationships tend to have members continually repair and problem-solve any emotional as well as functional issues.  The expectation often is for both partners to be equally engaged in relationship maintenance.  However, if one partner "has to do the bulk of adjusting, clarifying, adapting and repairing, the other partner will quickly find the relationship unsatisfying and seek out partners who take on more of the responsibility of the relationship so that they can equally participate in the creative, enjoyable aspects of their encounters" (Gutstein and Whitney, 2002, page 164).  Faith felt that she was carrying not just her share of the burden but most of Brody's share as well.  She was tired of the inequity.  Faith's appreciation of "Brody being Brody" was waning.  Initially appreciating their differences contributed to the relationship.  Like many couples, they had valued how they were different.  It was stimulating and led to new experiences for both of them.  It was interesting how they could share experiences but perceive them so differently.  They had tended to incorporate their different ways of seeing and doing things into their relationship.  Over time however, Faith began to feel that there was less incorporation of her perspectives and preferences, while Brody was overly insistent on his ways being "right."  "Good friends communicate that they very much want to get to know their communicative partners and are willing to accept them, flaws and all" (Gutstein and Whitney, 2002, page 164).  Acceptance however had become problematic as the flaws became more evident and enduring.

3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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